American Fire east of Foresthill. Fire scene taken off Chicken Hawk Rd in the evening of August 14. Image: Wes Schultz
FORESTHILL Calif. August 19, 2013 - During the first community meeting for the American Fire, Tahoe National Forest Supervisor Tom Quinn answered a question from the public that has been on everybody's mind. What caused this blaze?
The fire is likely to be human-caused, Quinn said. "There is an ongoing origin-cause investigation. We know that a late-model pickup was seen in the vicinity and it has been burnt over. We also know that there were two gentlemen in the area, looking for a ride into town. They were given a ride into town and were interviewed by Forest Service investigators." Quinn said that no charges have been filed and no arrests have been made. He stressed that the investigation is ongoing, explaining "Even if the fire is human-caused, there's a difference between arson and stupidity."
The meeting was organized by CAIMT4, a Type 1 Incident Management Team, with Rocky Oplinger heading the team. Oplinger is familiar with the area, having battled and beaten the Ralston Fire in 2006. The Ralston fire started in the bottom of the Middle Fork American River on Tuesday September 5, 2006 and was declared at 6:00 pm on Sunday, September 17, 2006. The fire burned 8,423 acres.
This time around, conditions are different. The fire is burning in an area that has has no fire for decades. Heavy fuels are contributing to a thick layer of smoke that has plagued the foothills for over a week and makes life in Foresthill difficult.
Placer County has issued an air quality advisory for the foreseeable future and public health officials were at the meeting to share their tips with the public. Also present were CAL FIRE NEU Unit Chief Brad Harris, Placer County Sheriff's Department and Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery.
Incident Commander Rocky Oplinger addressing the Foresthill community on Monday evening. Photo: YubaNet
Complex fire, many possible scenarios
Oplinger explained the complexity of the fire, burning in multiple drainages at once, erratic winds with a high potential for lightning and the extreme steepness of the terrain. He laid out a scenario his team wants to avoid at all costs - with the fire becoming established in the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River and making a run towards I80.
He was pleased to report that crews had completed a line around the northern end of the fire - corralling it for now and impeding the march towards Blue Canyon.
The southern portion of the fire, closer to Foresthill and Michigan Bluff, is the next area of special focus for the team. Both on the south and east side of the fire, firefighters are working to deprive the fire of fuel by backburning. But to fight fire with fire, safety has to be the primary concern. Preparations for the backburns are ongoing and the community will be informed ahead of time. The defensive burns will burn at lower intensities than a running fire, but the additional smoke will add to the already unhealthy air quality.
Oplinger highlighted the cooperation between the Forest Service, CAL FIRE, law enforcement and Placer County agencies, saying that relying on his partners in these agencies proves invaluable. In the event of an evacuation for example, Placer County would activate their notification system while at the same time Sheriff's deputies would go door to door to notify residents of an evacuation advisory, giving everyone the maximum time to prepare. At the same time, CAL FIRE engines would stage for structure protection in the evacuated area.
Historic resources at risk, status unknown for some
The status of the Western Trail is not known at this time. The fire has burned over a portion of the trail, but the intensity of the burn is unknown. The same goes for the historic cabin at Last Chance. Firefighters will assess the severity of the burn once it is safe to check. The 3 structures lost so far are outbuildings in the Pacific Slab Mine area.
Got questions? Just ask
The team is providing information and updates through every possible channel, from updates on the inciweb.org website, information officers with large maps located throughout the community, regular updates sent to the news media, to information phone lines and social media.
"Good or bad, we'll tell you what's going on." Oplinger said.
Structure protection for Mumford Cabin and Duncan Peak
In the meantime, Mumford Cabin and Duncan Peak lookout are being wrapped in fire-retardant materials to augment their chances of surviving the fire, should it spread that far.
This will be the second time in 5 years that Mumford Cabin gets the wrapping treatment. During the 2008 lightning storm, the American River Complex threatened the cabin built in 1868 at the end of Mumford Trail. The cabin was wrapped on July 4th, the fire burned around the cabin and 2 weeks later firefighters unwrapped an intact building.
Thank You Firefighters
There are 1,850 firefighters on scene - asked what the community can do to thank them, Oplinger said the signs posted along the roadside and the groups of people waving at the firefighters when they leave or return to camp are important for the emotional well-being of all the personnel. Saying Thank You does makes a difference.
As of Monday night, the fire has burned 14,823 acres and is 53% contained. Estimated containment date is September 1st. Real-time updates are posted here.
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